Perry Mason: intelligent television from a bygone era

If you’re fed up with the inanity of fake news, the depressing facts in real news, and the stupidity of modern pop culture, may I recommend Perry Mason?

I’ve always enjoyed knitting to classic television. I’ve knit my way through I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Carol Burnett, and a host of other shows that I classify as “mental comfort food.’ My latest knitting show is Perry Mason, which ran from 1957 through 1966.

I actually have very vague memories of watching Perry Mason with the family when I was still a very little girl. Raymond Burr frightened me, for he was a big man, with big eyebrows, and represented AUTHORITY. He was an uber-Daddy figure, seeming to me to be much more stern than my real Daddy, who was usually a jovial man who left most disciplining to my mother (who nevertheless would say things such as, “Wait until your father hears about this”). The result was that I didn’t come away with very good memories of Perry Mason, which I remembered as a scary show.

My distaste for Raymond Burr wasn’t helped when, in my 20s, I saw him in Rear Window. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that he fulfilled perfect his actorly responsibility to play an unappealing character.

Last week, though, when I picked up my knitting, I went hunting for some classic TV and found Perry Mason just sitting there, waiting to be watched. I sampled an episode, liked it, and kept going. I’ve now watched brilliant criminal defense attorney Perry Mason, Della Street (his insanely loyal, hardworking secretary), Paul Drake (his private investigator), Lieutenant Tragg (the primary police investigator), and Hamilton Burger (the District Attorney) through two hats, a scarf, and a pair of socks. Aside from my knitting accomplishments, which are a pleasure on their own, it’s been enjoyable catching up with this show.

To begin with, watching the show with adult eyes — not just adult eyes, but lawyer eyes — I can see that Perry Mason is anything but scary. Instead, as Raymond Burr plays him, he is the “perfect gentleman.” Mason is learned, brave, ethical, generous, kind and, of course, remarkably intelligent. The face that I once thought overwhelming I now see has an almost hound dog appeal to it.

Looking at the bio information for Raymond Burr, it seems that a lot of Burr himself shines through in that character. Burr was a brave man who survived being shot in the stomach on Okinawa while serving in the Navy during WWII. He was renowned for his generosity, for he took seriously Errol Flynn’s advice that if he still had money in his pocket when he died, he’d done a bad job at life. In fact, despite his memorable generosity, Perry Mason and Ironside meant that Burr died with $32 million in his pocket, which he left entirely to his life’s companion, Robert Benevides.

William Hopper, who played Paul Drake, Mason’s private investigator, was another interesting person. If his last name is familiar, it’s because it reminds you of Hedda Hopper who was his mother. Hedda started in Hollywood as an actress, but later become a renowned, and extremely powerful, gossip columnist. William Hopper’s father was DeWolf Hopper Sr., a forgotten name now, but a hugely successful matinee idol back in the day. Hopper himself was a very good-looking man. Moreover, he didn’t just rest on his family’s laurels. During WWII he was a Navy frogman, which was the predecessor to today’s Navy SEALS. Hopper went into the service with sleek brown hair but the stress was so tremendous that he left the service with the striking snow-white hair one sees in the show.

Ray Collins, who played Lt. Tragg, had a few interesting things in his past too. He was a descendant of the commander of Sutter’s Fort in the years before the Gold Rush, a factoid that I, a native Californian, find amusing. In the 1930s he played not one, not two, but three(!) roles in Orson Welles infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles cast him again in Citizen Kane, in which he played the ruthless Boss Jim Gettys, as well as in The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil. Ironically, William Hopper’s mother, Hedda, had tried to block Citizen Kane because everyone knew that it defamed her friend William Randolph Hearst.

William Talman, who played the excellent DA who nevertheless lost every case, had his own story. For one thing, he entered WWII as a private and left it as a major, something that argues intelligence and good people skills. From a modern perspective, the more intriguing thing was that he was arrested during the run of Perry Mason for attending a party that the police claimed was “wild,” including guests who were nude. Talman insisted he was innocent of wrongdoing, his case was dropped, and a judge eventually criticized police conduct, but the show’s producers nevertheless tried to kick him off using the morals clause in his contract. It was only because of a viewer write-in campaign that he was reinstated in his job after the claims against him were dismissed. Talman, a heavy smoker, succumbed to cancer. Before he died, he became the first celebrity to make a short movie decrying the harm cigarettes cause.

Let me take a minute to explain here when I meant when I said that Talman is interesting from a modern perspective. Just think about the treatment meted out to Talman, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, versus the treatment Jussie Smollett got for almost certainly filing a fake police report in service of a fake crime committed to bump up his pay base. The media and the entertainment industry went all out for him and it took Empire’s producers forever to decide that he shouldn’t return to the show — although his contract continues, which presumably means he still gets paid. As for the morals clause that almost destroyed Talman’s career, all the nudity is on-screen now, rather than hidden discretely at “wild” parties. Without nudity, HBO would have nothing to run on its many channels. The more tame stars probably fake moral turpitude to get their names in the press….

Barbara Hale, who played Mason’s loyal secretary, has a very boring bio — unless you consider it interesting in the Hollywood world to read about someone who managed successfully to stay married, raise three children, be a star in a long-running show, and have no scandals whatsoever attached to her. Her main claim to fame was that she had a magnificent shriek and was sometimes dubbed in for other actresses.

So that’s the cast. What I really like about the show, though, is that it’s smart. Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the books on which the show was based, was a career litigator until he was able to make money from his writing. His inside knowledge about how cases worked, especially in a time before pre-trial discovery ensured that all the facts were developed before the trial began, meant that the trial scenes in his books had a strong, authentic underpinning. The show’s writers carried that authenticity into the TV show itself. The show’s courtroom procedure, from objections, to entering evidence, to the judge’s rulings, are therefore entirely accurate. Indeed, I would have had an easier time at law school and as a young lawyer if I’d watched re-runs of that show.

Each episode is a mini-murder mystery with Perry invariably representing the wrongly accused person and then brilliantly sussing out the true criminal, whom he exposes with savagely polite cross-examination. What impresses me is that I’m never quite sure who the real killer is. I’ve read a lot of mysteries in my time, so I’m usually pretty good at figuring out “whodunnit.” These shows, however, are so smartly written they usually don’t give the game away until the end.

I’m also enjoying the whole late 1950s feel of these black and white episodes (I’m only halfway through season 2, so I’m up to 1959). I love the women’s clothes; I love the way everyone is politely referred to as Mr., Mrs., or Miss; I love the old cars (even though they were death traps); and I love the combination of hard-boiled criminals (for it is 50s noir) along with an innocence that was both part of the culture and part of a world that insisted that TV maintain certain standards of decency.

Mostly, though, I love that the show respects the viewers’ intelligence. Sure, there was stupid television out at the time. Much as I adore I Love Lucy, no one could argue that it was intellectual fare. Perry Mason, though, assumes that it’s viewers have a fairly sophisticated vocabulary, can track a complicated plot with multiple characters over the course of 45 minutes, and will sit patiently waiting for a denouement, without needing the constant laughs or dramatic mini-plot twists that modern-day entertainment consumers, with their 45-second attention spans, demand.

If you have access to the old Perry Mason shows (I’m watching through Amazon Prime), why don’t you give them a whirl?

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